Congressional Democrats have called for an investigation into an alleged conversation regarding US sanctions between White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Russia's ambassador before President Trump’s inauguration, a move that could potentially constitute a breach of US law barring private citizens from engaging in diplomacy.
Sens. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts and Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut called Friday for an investigation of Lt. Gen. Flynn, a retired Army general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. White House officials say they spent the weekend reviewing any contact Flynn had with Russian officials before Mr. Trump took office.
While it’s not unusual for incoming administrations to open dialogues with foreign countries, it is illegal for private citizens to carry on correspondence "with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States," according to the rarely enforced Logan Act.
The Washington Post has reported that US officials are now backing up month-old claims that Flynn discussed US sanctions placed on Russia by former President Barack Obama with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump's inauguration.
During the presidential campaign, Trump expressed a desire to mend US-Russian relations and has since been ensnared in several controversies regarding ties to the country. Some officials have raised concerns that, if Flynn's early contact with Russian officials involved talk of sanctions, it would have signaled the incoming administration's willingness to walk back new sanctions put in place by the Obama administration.
Flynn initially denied discussing sanctions in the calls. But some say a transcript of a particular call made on Dec. 29, the day Mr. Obama hit Moscow with sanctions, could reveal otherwise.
Those sanctions stemmed from a US intelligence assessment that the Russian government had interfered with the US election to boost Trump’s chances of winning. The Trump administration maintains that Flynn called Mr. Kislyak to extend his condolences following a fatal Russian plane crash and to wish him a Merry Christmas.
After US officials raised concerns about the call, Trump officials first denied that the conversation took place. Several hours later, an official did acknowledge the call. Last month, Vice President Mike Pence denied that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions, saying the timing of the call was purely coincidental and coming to the defense of Flynn’s character.
US intelligence officials often monitor calls made between the US and foreign leaders. According to the Post, nine current and former officials say Flynn made explicit references to the sanctions.
“Kislyak was left with the impression that the sanctions would be revisited at a later time,” a former official told the Post.
Flynn has walked back his initial response, saying he has “no recollection” of speaking about the sanctions, but “can’t be certain” as to whether or not they were discussed, as a Trump administration official told the Associated Press. Trump is expected to hear questions regarding Flynn and the alleged misconduct at a press conference Monday.
The calls for an investigation into Flynn follow other Russia-related accusations. Last week, House Democrats called for an investigation of Flynn to determine whether he had violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which bars those holding federal office from receiving gifts from foreign governments, and applies to both active and retired military. In 2015, Flynn participated in a celebration of Russia's government-controlled RT news network alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials, and was paid for his involvement.
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.